There’s a moment in Sugarcane, a gut-punch of a documentary, when a central subject relays his shattering experiences with Catholic-run Native American schools in Canada. He goes quiet after testifying to a somber-looking clergyman. The camera stays with both people, allowing us to observe years of pain in the survivor’s crestfallen face and the sorrowful posture of the listener. “Being sorry is the first step,” the subject says after the priest apologizes for the role the Catholic Church played in abusing Native populations. “You have to take action.”
At the heart of Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie’s powerful film is this question of action. How do you act when faced with violence from the past? What does accountability look like? The documentary, which premiered in competition at Sundance, braids three narratives connected to the discovery of unmarked graves near St. Joseph’s Mission, an Indian residential school near Sugarcane Reserve in Canada. It explores the story of its co-director Julian and his father, who was born under devastating circumstances; follows the investigation by the Williams Lake First Nation; and then threads in the painful self-reflection of the First Nation’s former chief, Rick Gilbert.
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Sugarcane’s sensitivity to the ongoing pain of its subjects is one of the film’s principal achievements. NoiseCat and Kassie offer an affecting portrait of a community that endures in spite of colonial genocide.
The film opens with a few title cards, which efficiently establish the wrongs committed against the people of Williams Lake First Nation. There are no talking heads in Sugarcane, so this summary of facts offers an essential orientation. In 1894, the Canadian government created a network of boarding schools run by the Catholic church. They sent tens of thousands of Indigenous children to these institutions in order to, in their words, eliminate the “Indian problem.” The callous operation separated kids from their families and forced them into a ruthless environment designed to strip them of their culture. Students faced routine abuse and many died trying to run away. Others committed suicide. Sexual assault was rampant, with priests fathering children they got rid of in horrific ways.
After 93 unmarked graves were discovered in 2021, a team of Williams Lake First Nation people opened an investigation into the St. Joseph’s school. Sugarcane introduces us to two of its members — Charlene Belleau and Willie Sellars — and chronicles their fact-finding mission. They find newspaper archives and police files detailing how children ran away, how the babies born to the students were incinerated and how different government agencies collaborated to cover up these crimes. They petition for recognition from the current Canadian government, an effort that leads to a milquetoast word salad from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. NoiseCat and Kassie include archival footage of advertisements for these schools throughout the film. The grainy black-and-white videos show children as young as 6 or 7 being lectured on “civilized behavior.”
Interviews with residents of Williams Lake help fill out this haunting and damning narrative. Through them, we come to understand the impact these parochial environments had on survivors. Some of them still can’t talk about it, and the filmmakers don’t force them too. Sugarcane is more interested in an emotional investigation into accountability than a journalistic one.
That isn’t to say there isn’t any reporting, but this approach helps the doc unfurl at a considered pace. Gilbert’s story stands out in this section because it’s an example of the complications of confronting history. Gilbert doesn’t like to discuss what he experienced at St. Joseph, and struggles to process that his father might have been one of the priests. Yet he still seems devoted to his Catholicism enough to protect items from his place of worship when the announcement of the graves leads to an uptick in church fires.
In some early interviews with other survivors, people avoid their recollections. There are gentle confessions of wishing to forget. Later, when some participants are more willing to share, their stories contain similarities. Children who reported what they witnessed or experienced found their testimonies dismissed by the adults.
This denial impacted generations of Indigenous people, and its effects can be seen throughout the present-day community. These children are now adults who struggle to confront the pain of their pasts. The thread focused on NoiseCat and his father, Ed, offers a healing perspective and some of the most poignant moments in Sugarcane. NoiseCat encourages his father, who was born at St. Joseph’s, to find out more about the circumstances surrounding his birth. At first, his father resists and reminds Julian that his mother (the director’s grandmother) doesn’t ever want to talk about it. A road trip around the country leads to a series of revelations about the relationship between Julian and his father, and in the film’s penultimate scene the three convene to talk. Their conversation is one of the most poignant moments in Sugarcane because of how it addresses what it means to act on an intergenerational level.
Sugarcane handles its heavy subject matter without despair. NoiseCat and Kassie find hope in the fact that their story has no obvious conclusion. They weave in surprising moments of levity, uplift their subjects and embrace the turbulent emotional arc of the investigation into St. Joseph’s. In the end, Sugarcane affirms that if we are to ever rectify the past and present-day violences of colonialism, we have no choice but to act.
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